Trio's first encounter involves light sparring

The three candidates to replace state Sen. Jim Sebesta took a few jabs at each other but didn't swing any haymakers.

Published July 28, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - State Rep. Charlie Justice worked Thursday to shift the focus of the state's most competitive legislative election from insurance and education to the politics of Terri Schiavo.

Justice, a Democrat running in Senate District 16, said the Legislature and his two Republican opponents, state Reps. Kim Berfield and Frank Farkas, were wrong for twice trying to interfere in the Schiavo case.

Justice opposed both efforts, and was quick to draw the distinction before members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club at a televised candidate forum Thursday at the Feather Sound Country Club.

"These issues are going to come up again," said Justice of St. Petersburg. "And it's crystal clear who is going to stand up for you in Tallahassee." Earlier, Justice said government should not meddle in "personal tragedies."

Berfield said she talked to her pastor and family before coming to her own decision to intervene. She said it was a difficult choice.

"I am not God, and I wouldn't want his job," said Berfield of Clearwater. "But the reality is, you can't give a person back their life. I had to make a life-and-death decision."

Farkas, who did not address the Schiavo issue during the hourlong debate, said afterward his medical training as a chiropractor helped guide his choice.

"I do everything to improve the quality of life of a patient. And in this instance, I felt that keeping Terri alive was the right thing to do," said Farkas of St. Petersburg.

Farkas and Berfield, who will face off in the September Republican primary, largely avoided jabs at each other during the debate.

They did, however, lay the groundwork for potential future attacks.

At one point Farkas focused on his experience as a St. Petersburg homeowner, who pays property taxes and a mortgage. (Spin: Berfield doesn't own any property and until recently had lived with her parents.)

And Berfield said the next state senator should avoid situations that could raise an eyebrow "or cause people to have concerns over your integrity or your character." (Spin: Farkas accepted a free trip to Canada from a gambling company lobbying in Tallahassee, which spawned a Senate investigation.)

Farkas also had to answer a question about his involvement with St. Petersburg developer Grady Pridgen, who sought to skirt local development rules for a Pinellas County condominium development.

Farkas wrote a bill in the state House supporting Pridgeon, though it went nowhere. It's a nonissue, Farkas said.

"No bill was filed," said Farkas, who has received at least $2,000 from Pridgen. "No bill was introduced."

Berfield, Farkas and Justice are running to replace state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, who cannot seek a third term because of term limits.

The race is considered the most competitive in Florida, and a harbinger for the legislative elections across the state.

It is the first time in modern history that two members of the state House will face each other in the general election. In 2004, Republicans held about an 8,000 voter registration advantage in the district, which covers eastern portions of Pinellas County and western areas of Hillsborough County.

All three candidates have been in the state House at least six years, leaving each with a history of votes, statements and actions.

"This is not about what a candidate would have done," Justice said. "This is an apples-to-apples comparison. You get to decide how the three of us have represented you."